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Obituary Jews Recall Moynihan As an Ally on Israel, Fight for Soviet Jewry

March 28, 2003
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Daniel Patrick Moynihan once received a $1,000 political contribution from a woman who wrote that she would have doubled the amount if only Moynihan would spend less time speaking out against the infamous “Zionism Equals Racism” resolution in the United Nations.

Moynihan, who had been U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, sent the check back, noting that “no one is going to dictate to me my conscience.”

Moynihan, who died Wednesday at age 76 of complications from surgery, is being remembered in the Jewish world as a tireless fighter for some of the key issues of his time, including Soviet Jewry and the status of Jerusalem.

The four-term Democratic senator from New York, who retired in 2001, was viewed as more than a legislator; he was a frequent consultant to the Jewish community on how to advance its political agenda.

“He had a whole perspective that was fascinating on these issues,” said David Luchins, who served as Moynihan’s adviser for 20 years. “What he didn’t know about, he asked about.”

Moynihan was born in Tulsa, Okla. on March 16, 1927, and moved to New York shortly thereafter. He studied at the London School of Economics before starting his political career on the New

York mayoral campaign of Robert F. Wagner.

After earning a doctorate in international relations at Syracuse University, he worked at the Labor Department and later served as ambassador to India.

By the time Moynihan became the Ford administration’s envoy to the United Nations in 1975, he already was well known for his policy statements on minorities and urban affairs in previous White House administrations. But it was at the United Nations that he first came to the attention of the Jewish community, as he battled the resolution denigrating Zionism that the international body had approved.

“He was a scholar, he thought that words mattered,” Luchins said.

“I think he was genuinely shocked and outraged at the reality of anti-Semitism in the United Nations,’ Nadler said. “I think it was an issue of right and wrong for him.”

Luchins said Moynihan went “door to door” on the issue at the United Nations. His outspokenness led to tensions with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his departure from the New York post after only eight months.

He continued to speak out against the U.N. resolution after being elected to the Senate in 1976. It ultimately was repealed in 1991.

Moynihan also became intimately involved in the fight for the rights of Jews in the Soviet Union. Jewish leaders said Moynihan often attended Soviet Jewry rallies in New York, and would meet directly with Jewish leaders on the issue, rarely delegating to his staff.

“For him, it came down to inequities among people,” said Zeesy Schnur, the former executive director of the Greater New York Coalition for Soviet Jewry. “He couldn’t understand why a country would spend so much time, energy and money to hamper a basic human right for people.”

But Moynihan also knew when to stop. He convinced Jewish leaders to take a two-year hiatus from the rallies as a gesture to the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who had shown a willingness to take action on the plight of Soviet Jews.

Moynihan was a great advocate for Israel in the Senate as well championing a bill to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The bill passed with much fanfare in 1995, but presidents have consistently avoided making the change, claiming that the move would hurt America’s status as a negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moynihan’s relations with the Jewish community centered on foreign affairs, but also involved domestic policy. Moynihan, who chaired the Senate Finance Committee, pushed social security and welfare reform, and worked with Jewish leaders on education issues.

“I just think that he had a kind of kinship with us, not only as Jewish people but as people who had ideals and concepts of what the world should be like,” said Bernice Tannenbaum, a former president of Hadassah and chair of the World Zionist Organization.

Many recalled that Moynihan fought hard for the big issues of the day, but also took personal interest in the plight of individual Jews.

Luchins remembers Moynihan calling the U.S. Postal Service to advocate on behalf of a New York postman who had become more religious and no longer wanted to work on the Sabbath. He told the bureaucracy that no one should have to choose between their conscience and their profession.

When traveling abroad, Moynihan often tried to visit local Jewish communities and synagogues. On a visit to Morocco in 1990, Moynihan was shown a copy of the first Jewish prayerbook printed in the country, and it later was given to him as a present.

“He was in a state of shock,” unsure what to do with such a significant item, Luchins said. He later presented it to the late Lubavitch rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, on his 90th birthday.

Moynihan is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, three children and two grandchildren.

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